Attention Struggles in Children and Why They Often “Can Not Pay Attention”

As a parent (or teacher), have you ever caught yourself thinking, “My child can’t pay attention to anything!” Or, “They cannot seem to finish anything they start!” 

Staying focused and completing a task has to do with an important executive function skill – attention. Many students have attention struggles, so do not freak out!

little boy with his head down looking at a piece of paper with coins on it. Showing attention struggles.
  • What are executive functioning skills and why are they so important?
  • Read this post to learn more! 

In this blog post, I’m going to show you how this executive skill is so crucial for your child to be able to function effectively at school and at home. This should help with the attention struggles you are seeing!

The Two Parts of Attention

Attention has two parts. The first part is task initiation. The second part is sustained attention. Both parts of attention are important when we are talking about attention struggles. I can’t talk about one without talking about the other. 

The first thing our kids need is the part of attention that allows them to go ahead and get ready to start an activity. This is called task initiation. Many children struggle with actually starting the task in front of them. They may “zone out”, avoid the activity, or become distracted by stimuli around them.

a boy in a red shirt holding a marker and whiteboard. attention struggles of task initiation

But that’s not the only place where attention struggles come into play.

The next part they need is sustained attention. Not only do children struggle with actually getting students to start the activity, but they often can not sustain attention long enough to complete the activity. 

Examples of Attention Struggles

To help you understand attention struggles regarding task initiation and sustaining attention, I thought I’d give you a couple of helpful examples.

Task Initiation Life Skill Example:

Here’s an example of not being able to start a task.  Let’s take cleaning up their room. Now that’s a big thing we parents want. They make it to their room, but they end up reading a book or playing with a long-lost toy. So they were kind of close, but they didn’t initiate the task. 

Task Initiation Classroom Example:

I see the same sort of attention struggle in classrooms. The teacher explains a task in great detail. She does a beautiful job at explaining how to do it, how to start it. The child has the assignment in front of them and they do nothing. Their imagination is off somewhere else. They’re thinking about something else and they do not even get started on the task.

Task initiation is a definite attention struggle for many students.

Here are a couple of examples where a child has attention struggles when it comes to sustaining attention.

Sustaining Attention Classroom Example:

Let’s say they are assigned questions to answer in their notebook or a worksheet to fill out. They initiate the task by writing their name. Maybe they’ll answer the first question. But then their sustained attention fails – they’re off someplace else. They start doodling or chatting with their neighbor or daydreaming.

The work doesn’t get finished, doesn’t get turned in and they have to stay back from recess to complete it. Or the work gets sent home. 

Sustaining Attention Life Skill Example:

Here’s an example with a life skill – taking a shower. So they’ll get started – they’ll turn on the shower.  But then they leave the water running and they are off doing something else. They were able to initiate the task, but they weren’t able to finish it. They need help with their sustained attention. 

If you feel like your child struggles with attention and other executive functions, this blog post might be helpful.

The Executive Functioning Perspective

The next time you catch your child not being able to complete something or getting stuck in something, sit back, pause and try to determine: are they not able to start an activity or are they able to start the activity, but they weren’t able to complete it. Then use the executive functioning perspective to see how you can help them. with their specific attention struggles.

>> Learn about another important executive skill – Working Memory – in this video! 

If you’ve spotted a couple of these things happening at home, feel free to give me some feedback in the comments below or send me an email at I’d love to see how this perspective shift was able to help you help your child. I also have an executive functions membership. Get 1-to-1 help, along with special resources! 

I have a free executive functions guide that I have developed for parents and teachers! You can grab it here

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